While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites—men, women and children—gathered around him. They too wept bitterly. Then Shekaniah son of Jehiel, one of the descendants of Elam, said to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God….Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.”
So Ezra rose up and put the leading priests and Levites and all Israel under oath to do what had been suggested. And they took the oath. Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God and went to the room of Jehohanan son of Eliashib. While he was there, he ate no food and drank no water, because he continued to mourn over the unfaithfulness of the exiles. - Ezra 10:1-6
This whole scene is set up by Ezra’s decision to get up and pray for the people of Israel. His intercession and repentance on behalf of the people has an impact on the people who see him there praying.
They too wept bitterly.
Previously, there were people who feared the word of the Lord gathering around Ezra. Presumably, these were people that were equally as upset with the rest of Israel because of their sin. However, when Ezra prays, scripture tells us that a large crowd of Israelites gathered around him. It does not say these were people who feared the word of the Lord. Therefore, we can assume that Ezra’s prayer caused a change of heart in many people. Perhaps some of these were people who had previously sat with Ezra upset with Israel’s sin. Now, they see Ezra’s broken heart for his people and their hearts are also broken. Perhaps some of these were those who had themselves been involved in breaking the commands of God. They wept bitterly over their sin and their hearts were also changed. Ezra’s intercession for people had an effect on the people around him.
Then Shekaniah…said to Ezra….
Unfortunately, as a pastor, I have witnessed way too much bitter weeping at the altar that has little impact on the lives of the people when they get up from the altar and walk out the doors of the church. Youth Pastors are often frustrated by broken-hearted teens who have an experience with God at camp and then return home and reconnect with friends with little fruit from their experience. At some point during this time of weeping, someone got up and began looking to the future. He proclaims that there is still hope! He proposes that a covenant be made…an agreement between two parties. The assumption is that they are renewing the covenant that the people had with God when he delivered them out of Egypt, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” (Exodus 19:5-6a). However, contrary to common thinking today, this was not just a covenant between them and God. Rather, they invite Ezra to hold them accountable and make sure that they follow through with the commitment that they made before God. They give Ezra the authority to hold them accountable and take this matter into his hands.
Then Ezra withdrew…
This is an interesting part of this text because it tells us what Ezra did when he left the house of God. Many of us preach or teach accountability and talk about what people need to do when they leave the altar, but what is the role of the person who has been invited to hold someone accountable. Ezra withdrew into a room and fasted. Scripture says that he did this because he continued to mourn the unfaithfulness of Israel. However, my belief is that he was also looking forward and praying for the faithfulness and responsiveness of Israel. I believe that he was praying for a change and praying that, when he took the matter into his hands and called the assembly in the next section, he would find Israel as responsive as they were when they made this commitment at the altar. It is easy for us to place all of the responsibility of follow-through on people who make commitments at the altar, but as pastors, lay leaders, mentors, and Christians who might be called to hold others accountable, how much do we fast and pray for the people who have made themselves accountable to us? We must take the role of priest that God has given all of us as Christians (1 Peter 2:9) seriously!